I caution my business coaching clients to beware of computer consultants, network administrators, or anyone for that matter, who come bearing paper certificates but little hands-on know-how. Yet I hear of many businesses who are so strapped to fill vacant positions, they don’t want to avoid hiring outside consultants or permanent employees by being too critical about experience and results. Does Certification = Qualification?

I read about a man who was finishing up a contract as a network technician in Europe.  He wanted to find work in the U.S., so he updated his resume and posted it on the Web.  Being curious, he ran an experiment to test the value of having a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certification.  So he put two resumes out there. 

Only the first was accurate, and detailed his many years of network and telecommunications experience working with many networking products and his resume also noted he was soon to receive a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

The second resume was similar, not as detailed, listed fewer years experience, and did not include college information.  But it did list an MCSE certification.  He used an alias last name on this resume, considering he wasn’t being quite truthful.

Three days after posting the bogus resume, he started getting telephone calls and was offered positions based on phone interviews conducted while he was still out of the country.  But not for the real resume.  This aggravated him, knowing that he’d spent thousands of dollars for education, and spent many hours crawling underground, installing cable and figuring out how to configure complex networks.  If all he had to do was read a ‘Dummies’ book, spend some money for the tests and better job opportunities would present themselves, infuriated him.

The computer industry, and many others, are flush with certification programs.  In addition to the MCSE program, there are — Certified NetWare Engineer (CNE) and Certified Network Administrator (CCNA). Cisco engineers can become a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE), while their 3Com counterparts earn a Master of Network Science (MNS) certification.  But do these certifications offer real value to the people who receive them on behalf of their employers?

Two recent studies indicate employers perceive employees with certification to be more competent and productive.  Further, the employees themselves viewed certification as contributing to their professional credibility.  When supervisors compared otherwise similar employees, they found those within MCSE were consistently rated more competent than non-certified employees.

But does certification reflect knowledge or capability?  Some highly experienced and very qualified engineers complain that their co-workers cram for two days, pass a few exams, and then demand and receive a higher salary.  It’s also interesting that some test preparation firms offer a money back guarantee if you don’t pass the test after studying with their simulated exams — no training necessary.

Even folks at Microsoft’s admit so-called “paper MCSEs” — people who cram and pass the tests with little or no real world experience — are a problem, but say current and future tests will use more sophisticated situational testing which better reflect  candidates’ actual capabilities.

Network professionals note that a Cisco program is ideal because it requires previous network experience, and hands-on testing using Cisco equipment. More certifications are requiring the candidates design and build a working network.

Most managers agree that certification alone is a poor basis on which to judge the potential contractor or employee’s worth.  As one experienced and certified engineer puts it, “While experience is key, experience and certifications together are even better.”

As with hiring any contractor or employee . . . find out about the results of their work.  Check references by contacting their managers, or hire a professional firm to do it.  Past history is the best predictor of future behavior.  To coin a phrase from a recent best-selling business book, “People are not your most important asset. The right people are”.